My Life in Comics, Part 16: APE, the Alternative Press Expo …

(Above: a badge from APE 2008 designed by me (far left); the APE Exhibit Hall at the Concourse Exhibition Center; and Paige Braddock’s simian cartoonist for the APE 2008 Program Book cover, colored by me.)

When I look back over my 20+ year career with San Diego Comic-Con, I can definitely see what meant the most to me. Certainly creating the programming schedules for Comic-Con, APE, and WonderCon from 2000 through 2007 were the most fulfilling things I did, along with editing and designing the Comic-Con Souvenir Books from 2007 through 2020. But the most fun thing I did—dare I say WE did, as an organization—hands down had to be APE.

APE was short for the Alternative Press Expo, a bit of a misnomer in that it sounded more like a gathering of weekly city newspapers and less about comics, but it was the name we inherited from the show’s founder, Dan Vado of SLG Publishing (SLG=Slave Labor Graphics, not exactly politically correct then or now). I have a fondness for the show due to a number of things. It was about small press, independent, and yes, alternative comics, although towards the end a bit of DIY craft stuff started to creep into the show. It was held in San Francisco (originally San Jose), back when that city was a joy to visit. And it was a “boots-on-the-ground” type of show, meaning that the small staff that went up for the APE weekend would get up at the crack of dawn on Saturday and go to the venue to set up rented tables and chairs, and then tear it all down at the end of the day on Sunday. It was a bit grueling at times, but always fun. And most importantly, the exhibitors at APE were mainly comics publishers, some large (Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, SLG), and some decidedly of the mom-and-pop (or just mom or just pop) variety. The array of creativity was staggering at times and always inspirational. You couldn’t roam the APE Exhibit Hall without encountering some kind of amazing comic book or print or piece of art that you just had to have.

Black & white and original color versions of the APE logo, designed by Scott Saavedra.

But before I get into my own role in the show, let’s talk a little history. Here are some excerpts from a piece I wrote in 2013 for APE’s 20th anniversary, which was printed in a special section of the APE 2013 Program Book, titled “APE: The 20-Year Evolution of the Species.”

In many ways, 1994 was a turning point for the comics industry. The retail business was crowded with an over-saturation of stores that had jumped on the bandwagon in the wake of the high sales of comics with variant covers and numerous first issues, and many of those stores were closing. But at the same time, comics were experiencing a vibrant creative surge from indy and small press publishers. The success of titles such as Bone by Jeff Smith, Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore, and the ongoing appeal of Cerebus by Dave Sim led to a renaissance of new series, including those by Batton Lash (Supernatural Law), Linda Medley (Castle Waiting), Paul Pope (THB), Don Simpson (Megaton Man), and many others.

Across the country, comics creators were thinking with like minds. Sim launched the “Spirits of Independence Tour” in 1994 and 1995 with a group of events that crossed the country, stopping in places such as Bethesda, MD, Pittsburgh, PA, Columbus, OH, and San Jose, CA, to name a few, each anchored by an indy comics creator. That stop in San Jose, though, coincided with what Dan Vado, the publisher of SLG, was already planning: his own idea for a comics show that was different from the other conventions he attended as a publisher.

“I started the thing sort of on my own,” said Vado. “Dave Sim and I were friends back then and I called him about coming out. I think he was developing the idea for his tour separately from what I was doing because he was getting a lot of people calling him to do stuff because, beyond doing Cerebus, he was becoming very much an advocate for self-publishing and independent publishing. So our two things coincided, but I didn’t plan it originally to be a part of that [tour]. It just kind of worked out that way.”

A two-page spread from the APE 2013 Program Book special color section, focusing on the history of the event.

Dan’s idea was simple: A convention for smaller and independent publishers, separate from the larger events where the major publishers dominated the show. “I think it was the year before that DC rolled out their first giant video wall and huge booth [at San Diego Comic-Con], and in my mind eventually all conventions were going to be like that. It was already hard enough to get seen or noticed. So I thought a separate thing would be nice, and then on top of that it was—and I think this is one of the reasons why Dave also did his tour—fairly popular among retailers and distributors to kind of use the small press as a scapegoat for things that were wrong within the comic book industry. And I felt like let’s just have our own show. Let’s put on a carnival in the backyard, because those were sort of the things that were fueling my initial drive towards it.”

That “carnival in the backyard” was APE, the Alternative Press Expo, which debuted on June 4, 1994 at the San Jose Civic Auditorium as a one-day event. The first guests at the show, along with Dave Sim, were Keith Knight, Nina Paley, Scott Saavedra, and Adrian Tomine. The initial show was successful enough for Vado to want to continue. “I felt like there could be something there that could build through to a much larger, more fashionable type of thing … I think that ultimately a lot of people sort of jumped into the same area and did similar shows. I think that it shows that there was a potential for something like that.”

(A little present day introspection here: These shows were designed to not only sell comics, but also to function as a kind of “gathering of the tribes,” and often consisted of a one- or two-day show, followed by a kind of picnic/party event for the exhibitors so they could interact with each other out from behind their respective tables. It was something that eventually faded from the shows, even though it was a great idea.)

In the second year of the show, Vado came into a little bit of trouble with scheduling the event. “I had gone to the San Jose Convention Center and booked the thing, and put money down on it. I had started pushing it out there and it was only then when exhibitors started calling me back and saying do you realize that’s Mother’s Day you’re asking people to come out on. I realized that people weren’t going to come and I canceled it. And then Fae Desmond [Comic-Con’s Executive Director] called me up and asked how do we keep this going, because a show like APE really fits Comic-Con’s mission and it’s the type of thing that we want to do. At that point I just said, well if you want to run this thing, feel free and that’s pretty much how [Comic-Con] got involved. One of the things that I tell people that nobody believes is I didn’t sell APE. I gave it away because I wanted it to continue, because I felt it was important and I continued to work on it—right up until the point it moved to San Francisco—for free, for no compensation, just because I believed in the event and I wanted to continue to support it so that it could grow.”

And grow it did. The event continued in San Jose under Comic-Con until 2000, with Vado a part of the show and his SLG Publishing a cornerstone of the Exhibit Hall. In 2000, the seventh year of the show, Comic-Con moved APE to Fort Mason Center in San Francisco in an effort to attract a larger audience. Jeff Smith (Bone) was a guest that year for a one-day show, a kind of trial run. The show was successful and APE continued at Fort Mason Center with a second day added (Saturday and Sunday) until 2003, when it moved to the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco, where it remained until 2013.

Two views of the APE Exhibit Hall at the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco; that’s APE founder Dan Vado in the blue shirt talking to an exhibitor, left of center in the photo on the left. Click on the photos to see the full image. Photos by me.

Numerous shows like APE have sprouted up around the country, but only APE and SPX (Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD) survived since that initial rush of events two (now three) decades ago. At its peak in San Francisco, APE drew close to 6,000 attendees and hundreds of exhibitors. It’s a shame that this show died; it was a lot of fun to do and it held a vital place on the convention calendar. But San Francisco, while being a big comics town (numerous comic shops, plus the famous Cartoon Art Museum are located there), didn’t really seem to support the show financially, and it was a money-losing proposition to run. People would come to the show, pay the admission (which was cheap: $10.00 for a one-day badge, $15.00 for both days), maybe buy a thing or two, and leave. There was limited programming space—mainly one 250-seat room for most of the show, with some smaller workshop rooms added later, as APE took over the whole Concourse building in San Francisco, so there was not a lot to hold people in place. It took a while to walk around the multi-level Exhibit Hall and check out all the tables, so it was a fun day (or afternoon—San Franciscans seemed to be late risers on the weekends) for anyone who attended.

All of that combined to be what was—in some ways—so refreshing about doing the show. For me, as Director of Programming from 2000 through 2007, there was really only one room to program and watch over (and worry about), not the 12-14 of Comic-Con or 8-10 of WonderCon (which Comic-Con purchased in 2002 and was also in San Francisco at that point). There was a looseness to the event, a “Hey, kids … let’s put on a show!” kind of feel (albeit minus Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, thank god) that made it more fun and not the pressure cooker the other two events were. And it was a very satisfying show: There was something fulfilling about building it from scratch at 5:00 AM on Saturday morning and scrambling to get out of there by 7:00 PM on Sunday night.

My own history at APE began in 1999. I had just moved to San Diego—in December 1998—and brought with me box upon box of my self-published comic book, Innocent Bystander (for more about that, click here). I flew up to San Jose and had a table at APE in 1999. It was there that Rich Koslowski and I came up with the idea to merge our two comics (Rich wrote, drew and published The 3 Geeks) into one with Geeksville (and click here for the tale of that book). But little did I know that the next APE, the one-day event in San Francisco in 2000, would change my life for the next two decades.

APE 2000, the first show in San Francisco as the Herbst Pavilion at Fort Mason Center. It was the show that changed the rest of my life in a number of ways. Photo by me.

Rich and I shared a table at that February 5 event (Linda Medley, creator of Castle Waiting, was also with us) and we were front and center as you entered the hall. In the photo above, that’s Rich standing on the left and glowering at me taking the photo, with Linda seated at the other end of the Geeksville table. We were sandwiched between Batton Lash and Jackie Estrada’s Exhibit A Press (Supernatural Law) table and Keith Knight (The K Chronicles), whose Afro is just visible in that crowd on the right side of the photo. And—on a more personal note—the funny thing about this photo is the woman with dark hair and the light gray jacket directly in front of Keith turns out to be someone who would become one of my closest, dearest friends in the coming year or so, and remain so to this day (Hi, Caryn!). Little did I know, once again.

APE 2000 was my final step in an interview process to get hired at Comic-Con as their new Director of Programming. I had already interviewed with executive director Fae Desmond and other people in the office, most of whom knew me, since I had been freelancing with Comic-Con since 1999, working on both their website and the Eisner Awards PowerPoint presentation. I had one more hurdle to pass, and that was interviewing with Robin Donlan, then the VP in charge of Events (and now the President of the Board of Directors of Comic-Con). I evidently passed, because our lunch at the famous Greens restaurant in Fort Mason went well and by the first week in March, I had a new job.

APE Program Books from 2001 through 2014, all edited and designed by yours truly (with the exception of 2013 and 2014, which were done by Joe Camacho). I designed all the covers, though, and the 20th anniversary section in the APE 2013 book.

While I have every APE Program Book I ever did (from 2002 through 2014), I don’t have one for 2001, which would have been my first year as Director of Programming (I honestly don’t think there was one; it may have been just a flyer-like folded-over piece of paper with a program schedule on it and maybe a list of exhibitors). In 2002, I took over doing the Program Book. From 2002 through 2006, they were digest-sized booklets; in 2007, I convinced the powers-that-be that a comic book-sized publication was far more appropriate.

Some of the APE promotional postcards (top row), bookmarks (middle row), and posters (bottom row), I designed over the years. Artists include Gilbert Hernandez (2012), Faith Erin Hicks (2014), Batton Lash (2004), Lark Pien (2009), and Colleen Coover (2013).

When I took over as Director of Print and Publications in 2007, in addition to the APE Program Book that I edited and designed, I also designed all the ancillary promotional items we did, including posters, postcards, flyers, bookmarks, and local Bay Area newspaper ads. That art was always a variation of the cover art for the Program Book, and I had the opportunity to work with some great artists. We started doing original covers with the 2004 book (by the late Batton Lash, who also did the 2005 cover). It was always a great deal of fun to work with the artists on these and if I had to pick my favorite, I’d say it has to be Paige Braddock’s ape cartoonist for 2008, which—if memory serves me right—I also colored from Paige’s original line art drawing. I just love that drawing and the layout on that particular cover lent itself to the poster we sent to Bay Area comics shops and the newspaper ads I designed.

My favorite art for all the APE Program Books was this piece by cartoonist Paige Braddock (Jane’s World). I also colored this one. Click on the thumbnails to see the full image.

One of the best things about APE each year was its guest list and I was lucky to be a part of the committee who who came up with guest suggestions. Compared to Comic-Con and WonderCon, the number of special guests (which meant they were featured in programming and had hotel and travel expenses paid) was small, usually between five to eight guests per show. Often there was a Bay Area comics creator involved and Dan Vado’s company, SLG, had a guest slot each year. Here’s a list of the guests from 2002 through 2014; I don’t have a record of who the guests were in 2001, and to be honest, the dumbass who did the Program Book in 2002 failed to include guest bios (that dumbass would be me … rookie mistake). The credits listed with each name are what they were most famous for at that particular time.

2001: Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise) [I’m guessing, since he provided artwork for the badge, the one and only time we featured someone’s characters on attendee, exhibitor, and staff badges.)

2002: Jeff Smith (Bone), MAYBE Carla Speed McNeil (Finder), Judd Winick (Barry Ween, Boy Genius)

2003: Daniel Clowes (Eightball), Chynna Clugston-Major (Scooter Girl), Howard Cruse (Stuck Rubber Baby), Jhonen Vasquez* (Johnny the Homicidal Maniac), Robert Williams (ZAP!)

2004: Aaron A* (Serenity Rose), Alison Bechdel (Dykes to Watch Out For), Charles Burns (Black Hole), Carol Lay (Story Minute), Dan Vado (APE Founder)

2005: Seth (Palookaville), James Sturm (The Golem’s Mighty Swing), Jhonen Vasquez* (Johnny the Homicidal Maniac), Lauren R. Weinstein (Inside Vineyland)

2006: Black Olive* (ScrewTooth), Justin Green (Binky Brown comix), Keith Knight (The K Chronicles), Alex Robinson (Box Office Poison), Raina Telgemeier (The Baby-sitters Club series), C. Tyler (The Job Thing)

2007: Kevin Huizenga (Ganges), Karl Christian Krumpholz* (Byron: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous), Hope Larson (Gray Horses), Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim series), Francoise Mouly (The New Yorker art editor), Art Spiegelman (Maus) photo at left by me, Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese)

2008: Jessica Abel (La Perdida), Paige Braddock (Jane’s World), Megan Kelso (Artichoke Tales), Matt Madden (99 Ways to Tell a Story), Ethan Nicolle* (Chumble Spuzz), Chris Ware (ACME Novelty Library)

2009: Jamaica Dyer* (Weird Fishes), Phoebe Gloeckner (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Dean Haspiel (Billy Dogma), Batton Lash (Supernatural Law), Lark Pien (Long Tail Kitty), Dash Shaw (Bottomless Belly Button), Jeff Smith (Rasl)

2010: Lynda Barry (Picture This), Daniel Clowes (Wilson), Reneé French (H Day), Megan Kelso (Queen of the Black Black), Rich Koslowski (The 3 Geeks), Tommy Kovac* (The Royal Historian of Oz), Tony Millionaire (Sock Monkey)

2011: Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant!), Daniel Clowes** (The Death-Ray), Matthew Thurber (1-800-MICE), Craig Thompson (Blankets), Adrian Tomine (Shortcomings), Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man)

2012: Sergio Aragonés (MAD), Eric Drooker (Blood Song), Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez (Love & Rockets), Ben Katchor (Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer), Miriam Libicki (jobnik!), Jim Woodring (Jim)

2013: Colleen Cover (Bandette), Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead), Anders Nilsen (Big Questions), Raina Telgemeier (Smile), Paul Tobin (Bandette), Ron Turner (Last Gasp founder)

2014: Bob Fingerman (Minimum Wage), Faith Erin Hicks (The Adventures of Superhero Girl), Ed Piskor (Hip Hop Family Tree), Paul Pope (Battling Boy), Jason Shiga (Demon), C. Spike Trotman (Smut Peddler), Robert Williams (ZAP!)

*SLG guest slot
**Clowes, a San Francisco cartooning legend, warranted multiple APE guest spots and was always a draw, considering he didn’t do a lot of convention appearances; plus he published with both Fantagraphics and D&Q, the biggest exhibitors at the event.

One of many great panels at APE, this one occurred at the 2011 event.

As you can see, APE was a who’s who of amazing comics creators for its entire run (I didn’t work on years 1995-2000, but I know they had stellar guest lists at those shows, too). One of my fondest APE memories was from 2008, riding back to the hotel with Chris Ware, who gently chastised me for his spotlight program earlier that day. He was “appalled” that people actually showed up to see him. “You told me this show was small and no one goes to programs … the room was packed!” Obviously I lied, but attendance was always dependent on who was in the room and Chris Ware was—and is—a major draw in any year.

APE was always a winter or spring show, up until about 2008, when it shifted to the fall. It was better that way; having it earlier in the year meant it was a month or two apart from WonderCon, which was always a spring show, showing up anywhere from late March until early May, and meant all three Comic-Con shows, including San Diego, fell in pretty much the first half of the year. For the rest of Comic-Con’s involvement with the show—from 2009 through 2014—it landed in October, and San Francisco in October is particularly lovely. (There was always a hope for rain during APE weekend; if it was nice outside, the attendance fell.)

APE had a certain funkiness about it on all levels. The staff stayed at the Chancellor Hotel, just off Union Square, a very old-school hotel with a small building footprint, winding stairways, a very popular (for some staff members) lobby bar, and the world’s smallest hotel elevator (two people made it crowded) built by a company called PeeCo. For a number of years, a giant Borders bookstore was right next door and I would tell my boss that I would be in “my office” after we knocked off for the day. And also for many years, the Nike Women’s Marathon seemed to coincide with APE, and we would be awakened very early on Sunday morning as the runners congregated in Union Square, with loudspeaker pep talks and daily affirmations abounding before they all put sneaker to concrete.

The Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco was the venue for APE from 2003 through 2013, and certainly contributed to the event’s decidedly funky feeling. Photo by me.

The APE venue for many of those years (2003-2013) contributed to that funky feeling, too. It was called the Concourse Exhibition Center, and supposedly it was an old train station. You could see the center of the building was the tracks and the two upper levels that flanked it were platforms. For the first few years, APE was only in one half of the building (for a while the west side, then just the east side), which meant there was space for only one programming room, carved out of the Exhibit Hall and curtained off. Later, when APE took the whole Concourse building, an additional workshop room was added on the mezzanine over the east side of the building.

APE also had something extra that was missing from Comic-Con and WonderCon: a bar. As show with adult material (Comic-Con tried to discourage people who showed up with small children and never offered any kind of child badge price) a bar seemed appropriate. I remember sitting in on a panel featuring underground comix artists from the Bay Area. In the middle of the panel, one of the artists (he shall remain nameless even though he was legendary) abruptly got up and left. I wondered what happened; was he ill? About 20 minutes later he returned, drink in hand, sat back down, and said, “Now, as I was saying …”

The exhibitor registration party held at the Last Gasp warehouse in San Francisco was always a highlight of APE for me. Ron Turner’s incredible collection of circus banners was on display and it was wonderful to be able to explore row upon row of incredible books (and purchase them at a discount). The APE cake (center) was a fun addition, too.

Another APE tradition was the Friday night party for exhibitors held at the Last Gasp warehouse. Last Gasp was the legendary publisher and distributor of comix, magazines, and art books (among numerous other things) and they had this amazing warehouse in San Francisco. The party was limited to exhibitors and allowed them to get a jump on the weekend and come and pick up their badges on Friday night, avoiding the crowded check-in process on Saturday morning. Comic-Con and Last Gasp sponsored a bar and finger foods and always had a cake that was decorated to resemble the Program Book cover. What starving comics artist doesn’t appreciate a free meal … AND CAKE? There was also the chance to shop the massive Last Gasp warehouse and purchase books at a discounted price. This was always a fun event I looked forward to each year.

APE had so much going for it and I was very sad to see it leave the Comic-Con family of conventions. While it was never a money-maker for SDCC (or seldom even broke even), it was an important part of its mission statement— presenting comics to a wider audience—but it just got to the point that it became untenable to do the show on a number of different levels, including how the increasing growth of both Comic-Con and WonderCon impacted the staff. It was ultimately decided that 2014 would be the last year of SDCC’s management of APE and the Alternative Press Expo would be turned back over to Dan Vado, to do with as he pleased. The announcement that Comic-Con would be giving the show back to Dan was made at APE 2014. He moved it back to San Jose in 2015 and held the show again in 2016 and 2017, when it died a very quiet death.

Before (empty hall at left) and after during the last year for APE run by Comic-Con at the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason Center. While it was a fun and busy show, knowing that it was the final SDCC-run show made it more than a bit sad. Good-bye San Francisco … by this point WonderCon had already moved to Anaheim. Photos by me.

In its final Comic-Con-run year, APE went full-circle and moved back to Fort Mason, the original San Francisco home for the show, this time in the Festival Pavilion (both the Festival Pavilion and the Herbst Pavilion were located on piers that jutted out into San Francisco Bay). For many years the management at the Concourse had been telling Comic-Con that the sale of the building was imminent, but it survived through 2013 when it finally closed, eventually to be torn down to make room for still more condos. Fort Mason allowed for more programming rooms, which was a good thing, and a very picturesque view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and San Francisco Bay, but without that funky old train station (the Concourse), APE just didn’t seem the same.

Even though APE has been gone for five years now, there is hope for smaller, more focused comics shows like it. SPX in Bethesda, MD is still thriving each year and there are a few similar shows like Short Run Comix and Arts Festival in Seattle, which attracted over 4,000 people back on November 5, 2022. My favorite show (beyond APE, of course) is Thought Bubble, the UK’s largest comics festival, which is running right now as I write this (on Saturday, Nov. 12) in Harrogate, Yorkshire. I’ve been lucky enough to attend this show three times, in 2014, 2018, and 2019, and it’s everything I had hoped APE would become, but … “There wasn’t enough time, Michael …” It’s entirely comics and art-focused. In 2019 it moved to Harrogate to the convention center there, a game-changer for the show, which previously was spread out over parts of Leeds in tents (the Brits call them “Marquees”), with programs in other buildings. Programming is small at the show, but the sense of camaraderie and community is very strong and part of that comes from an excellent staff and the show’s creator, Lisa Wood (the artist known as Tula Lotay), who brought a strong artistic and compassionate feel to the event. It’s a great show and I wish I was there right now.

That’s the story of my favorite Comic-Con event, APE, the Alternative Press Expo.

Next time in My Life in Comics, we’ll look at WonderCon, the other San Francisco (and Anaheim) treat.

To read my complete “My Life in Comics” series, please click here.

To read all the “My Life in Comics” entries, please click here.

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